Sitting at the bye week with a 1-7 record and the season up in flames, drastic times called for drastic measures.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn moved wide receivers coach Raheem Morris to the defense and shuffled a few other responsibilities.
Like magic, the Falcons’ defense turned around.
The Falcons ditched the 3-4 alignments that had Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley standing up to mask whether they were rushers or linebackers.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians pointed out that the Falcons started playing less man-to-man defense and more zone coverage. The pass rush and coverage improved dramatically, which allowed the offense to stay in games.
The first half of the season was marked by first-half deficits in the double-digits, wide receivers running free through the Falcons secondary and a 357-snap sack-drought that went for four entire games and parts of two others.
The Falcons became tougher on third downs (32nd in the NFL the first eight games, first over the last eight.)
The defense stopped hemorrhaging points (29.6 points in first eight games to rank 31st, 16.9 points in the last eight games for fifth.)
The takeaways increased from two (ranked 32nd) in the first eight games, to 13 (seventh) over the final eight games.
For his efforts, Morris was named the defensive coordinator for 2020, and former defensive pass-game coordinator Jerome Henderson and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones left to pursue other opportunities.
On special teams, it was a revolving door at punter and kicker, while returner Kenjon Barner and the coverage teams shined.
Here’s a position-by-position look, with grades, on how the defense and the special teams performed in 2019:
Analysis: Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had a breakthrough season and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro. In the second half of the season, Beasley started to embrace using more than just his speed. He was moved from the left side to the right and finished with eight sacks. McKinley is another first-round pick (2017) who has yet to fulfill his promise as a pass rusher. He finished with 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Adrian Clayborn had four sacks and seven quarterback hits.
Analytics: The Falcons stuffed the opposition’s running plays 22 percent of the time, which ranked seventh in the league. A stuffed run is when the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Falcons had a 5.8% adjusted sack rate, which ranked 28th in the league. The adjusted sack rate give sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The numbers point to a stout front, weak pass rush and coverage issues (mostly from the first half of the season).
Snaps played: Jarrett 821, (77.7%) Beasley 774 (73.3%), Tyeler Davison 568 (53.8%), McKinley 557 (52.7%), Allen Bailey 521 (49.3%), Clayborn 446 (42.2%), Jack Crawford 436 (41.3%), Jacob Tuioti-Mariner 188 (17.8%), John Cominsky 102 (9.7%), Deadrin Senat 20 (1.9%), Austin Larkin 10 (.9%).
Analysis: The rangy De’Vondre Campbell led the Falcons in tackles with 129. He rushed the passer, covered tight ends and took down running backs. The team has started preliminary discussions to re-sign Campbell, who was drafted in the fourth round (115th overall) in 2016 out of Minnesota and is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. He wants to return. In addition to the tackle total, Campbell had two sacks, six tackles for losses, two quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Deion Jones did not have as many splash plays, but he finished with 110 tackles. Foye Oluokun played a major role in the defense’s mid-season turnaround. He finished with 56 tackles. The Falcons traded Duke Riley, who played 80 snaps on special teams, to Eagles for safety Johnathan Cyprien.
Analytics: The Falcons’ defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) was 4.4 percent, which ranked 31st of 32 teams in the league. The DVOA accounts for total defense as well as rushing and passing defense separated.
Snaps played: Jones 965 (91.4%), Campbell 937 (88.7%), Oluokun 312 (29.5%), Jermaine Grace 6 (.6%).
Analysis: Right cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a tall corner who was in his first season as a starter, improved as the season progressed. Left cornerback Desmond Trufant was having his best season before breaking his forearm. Rookie Kendall Sheffield held his own outside and when he went inside to play nickel back. He has a promising future. Damontae Kazee was moved from nickel to free safety and helped to stabilize the pass defense. Ricardo Allen went to strong safety and did a credible job replacing Keanu Neal, who was lost in Game 3 to a ruptured Achilles. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was a dependable replacement at left cornerback.
Analytics: Oliver received a porous 56.8 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Snaps played: Oliver 944 (89.4%), Allen 969 (91.8%), Kazee 817 (77.4%), Sheffield 708 (67%); Trufant 535 (50.7%), Wreh-Wilson 339 (32.1%), Kemal Ishmael 288 (27.3%), Neal 169 (16%), Jamal Carter 104 (9.8%), Jordan Miller 25 (2.4%), Johnathan Cyprien 24 (2.3%), Jamar Taylor 20 (1.9%), Sharrod Neasman 9 (.9%).
Analysis: It was a revolving door in the kicking and punting department. The front office handed the kicking job to Giorgio Tavecchio in the offseason instead of bringing in some competition. When he kept misfiring, the Falcons re-signed Matt Bryant. Younghoe Koo was added mid-season after Bryant started missing field-goal attempts and a key extra point at Arizona. Bosher struggled with a groin injury before going on injured reserve. Allen averaged 41.9 on 28 punts and placed several inside the 20. Barner added some life to the return game and returned a punt for a touchdown against Carolina. Fullback Keith Smith led the units with eight special-teams tackles and two forced fumbles.
Analytics: The Falcons had a 5.6 “hidden points” rating, which ranked eighth in the league. The number was boosted by four forced fumbles as the “hidden” part of the quotient represents the advantage teams have received from elements of special teams generally out of their control: opposing field goals, kickoff distance, and punt distance.
Snaps played: Long snapper Josh Harris 129 (28.7%), Barner 133 (29.6), Brian Hill 125 (30%), Koo 94 (20.9%), punter Ryan Allen 74 (16.4%), Bryant 34 (7.6%), punter Kasey Redfern 28 (6.2%), Bosher 25 (5.6%), punter Matt Wile 25 (56%).
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